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Breakthroughs in nanotechnology may transform treatments

Researchers are moving closer to a breakthrough in nanotechnology that has the potential to regrow damaged organs and heal serious wounds. Nanochips housed in a tiny pad the size of a penny can reprogram skin cells and generate cells in a process called nanotransfection. In trials, the non-invasive procedure restored the function of badly damaged blood vessels in days by firing DNA into skin cells from a small electric current.

The procedure has the potential to transform care for patients needing complex reconstructive surgery. There may be an opportunity to reprogram skin cells from parts of the body, which can be injected into the brain, to fight diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So far, the team has had successful trials of the technology on pigs and mice, and intends to start human trials next year.

Nanotechnology describes technological developments that occur at 0.1 to 100 nanometer scale. In health care, it is the development at molecular scale for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of diseases, including the regeneration of tissues and organs. The technology differs from stem cell therapy in that it does not require laboratory-based procedures, and could be implemented in routine health care settings. The new cells are produced under the guidance of the patient’s own immune system, which means immunosuppressant drugs are not necessary.

Nanotechnology may play a unique role in developing countries, where many people do not have convenient or any access to medical facilities. Less expensive diagnostic tools are in demand, and the ability to have diagnostic capabilities on a chip – combined with sensors for blood testing – could be life-saving. To date, nanotechnology research has been focused on fighting HIV. It is also being used to detect tuberculosis and in the fight against malaria. Researchers are also exploring the use of nanosensors that can detect myocardial infarction – which could prevent heart attacks. The hope is that an individual at risk could have a tiny chip, the size of a grain of sand, implanted and receive a warning on a wireless device from the sensor.

Analysis: How long before health care organizations need to consider how to incorporate nanotechnologies into their business? According to Deloitte’s Tech Trends 2017 report, not long. Medicine is driving the demand for nano-manufacturing. Nano-manufacturing could be used to make objects that mimic the process of DNA copy and protein synthesis, to make proteins that can be used as drugs to inhibit or treat disease. Products already being made through nano-manufacturing include nanoparticles of silver that kill bacteria and are integrated into clothing and medical devices to prevent infection. Nanoparticles of titanium that block ultra-violet light can be integrated into a lotion or spray and applied to the skin to prevent sunburn.

The report provides four steps for health care organizations that are considering integrating nanotechnology and other exponential technologies into their strategies:

  • Sensing and research: To begin exploring exponential forces and their potential, organizations should consider, as a first step, building hypotheses based on sensing and research. Identify a force such as nanotechnology – and hypothesize its impact on products, production methods, and the competitive environment. Then perform sufficient research around that hypothesis, using thresholds or trigger levels to increase or decrease the activity and investment over time.
  • Exploration: Once companies have identified technologies that look promising through sensing and research, they can begin exploring the “state of the possible” by looking at how others are approaching these forces, and determining if any of them could apply broadly to the industry. If these approaches could impact business, companies can begin developing use cases in the experimentation phase.
  • Experimentation: The move from exploration to experimentation involves prioritizing business cases and building initial prototypes, doing in-the-workplace studies, and putting them into use. When the value proposition of the experiment meets the expectations set forth in the business case, then companies can consider investing by moving into incubation. They will likely need an incubator that has full scaling ability to carry out the level of enhancement, testing, and fixes needed before putting this product out into the world.
  • Be programmatic: Taking any product – but particularly one grounded in exponential forces – from sensing to production is not a two-step process, nor is it an accidental process. Innovation is more about programmatic disciplined effort, carried out over time, than it is about inspiration or a “eureka” moment.

This weekly series explores innovative breakthroughs and new technologies that are driving momentum and change in the life sciences and health care industry.

Author bio

Doug leads Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Life Sciences and Health Care practice. With 24 years of experience, he works closely with multiple top health care organizations on major clinical and enterprise transformation efforts and on large-scale technology implementation projects. Doug has extensive experience in comprehensive quality and patient safety transformations, turnaround and performance improvement in academic medical centers as well as organization/workflow redesign and technology enablement. He has served as the lead on a number of enterprise transformation initiatives with some of Deloitte’s most largest and most complex clients.